9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.


The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

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Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.

 


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Four Years in Our House

Four years ago today, I moved into my house. In that time, it’s safe to say that I have fulfilled the cliche and turned this house into a home. 

I remember the first time I pulled up to it — back when it was still just a house. It was one of those fluffy snowy days in Chicago when the flakes are falling furiously and beautifully and the accumulation is swift. My then-future in-laws had endured the weather to drive up from southern Indiana to check out this house’s potential to be a home for me and their daughter. We weren’t yet engaged, and I already owned a condo in another suburb. My longterm visions had us getting married eventually and her moving into the condo with me, where we would save for a house and move out whenever the timing worked.

But when a family friend offered me a once-in-a-lifetime deal on a house in the suburb where I grew up — 10 minutes from my parents’ house — it was too good not to investigate the possibility. The friend was not listing the house, so I hadn’t even seen any prettified, wide-angle real estate photos of the interior, just the Google Street View exteriors, via my limited Internet stalking of the property.

I can still remember exploring the largely empty rooms for the first time with my girlfriend — what an odd word to use for her now — trying to picture a future together in rooms that have since been filled with our furniture, our thoughts, our feelings, our offspring and four years’ worth of memories. As I wandered around the basement, growing more fond of the house itself and my imagined version of that future, I remember praying that my Mr. Fix-It father-in-law wouldn’t find any devastating structural dealbreakers. I also remember being silently grateful for my Can’t-Fix-A-Thing self that the house was recently flipped with a new paint job and new appliances. I liked this house.

The house ultimately passed the test and has been silent witness to so many momentous and mundane moments of my life ever since. I asked my wife to marry me in the living room. I jokingly carried her through the front doorway on our wedding night.

We have played countless board games in our dining room. We have watched hours of television and worked through countless fights on the living room couch. We have hosted outdoor parties and built a shed in our backyard

I slept off the effects of chemotherapy in our bedroom and spent six months working remotely from the confines of this house. We keep adding new mementos to our Chicago Cubs bathroom. We have hung wedding photos and baby photos everywhere.

We have passionate debates about if or when we should knock out the wall between the living room and the kitchen.

Our guest bedroom turned into a nursery where I rock my daughter to sleep every night. My Northwestern University-themed office room turned into the guest bedroom. The office-turned-guest-bedroom is now transforming into another nursery, where I’ll rock my son to sleep. The house is constantly evolving to meet the needs of our home.

Our unfinished basement holds memories of our past stacked against the walls. It stores our bikes during the winter. It hides some still unused wedding presents. Most excitingly, it holds the promise of the future evolution of our family. There are new rooms still to be created that will be the setting for even more memories to come.

We’ve crammed so much life into this house in four years.

It’s our home.


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In Praise of Longer Days

When you live in Chicago, Mother Nature wages a winter-long competition between cold and darkness to see which can break you first.

While I despise the cold, I know that my real enemy is the darkness. You can always warm yourself up eventually, but there’s no way to make the sun emerge during Chicago’s winter hallmark: endless weeks of dreary gray skies. There comes a point each year, as I trudge to the train station in frigid darkness after work, that I wonder if it will ever be 80 degrees and sunny again — and realize with despair that we are still at least four solid months away from that warm reality. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, even if you only have a mild case of it.

But then there are days like today — a random Tuesday in late February — when cold and darkness both stay their hands. We are graced with unnatural 60-degree temperatures and an even more important reminder that spring is on its way: sunlight that lasts beyond 6 p.m.

There is something indescribably important about leaving work before it’s dark outside. Since childhood summers, the dying of the light has always represented a sort of sadness — the day is over, the fun has ended, it’s time to go inside. When you end your workday without the opportunity to see the sun setting in the sky, it feels more like your life in the cubicle has robbed you of a day you’ll never get back. If there’s at least a shred of daylight left when you emerge from your occupational cocoon, you’ve won.

I love these brief weeks before our clocks even do us the favor of “springing ahead,” when the sun lingers in the sky and ends its workday along with me. This evening I strolled through the beautiful streets of downtown Chicago with a spring in my step that matched the spring in the air.

The majestic Second City skyscrapers are extra magical when the sun has slipped down below their massive height — so the tops of the buildings are still brightly illuminated and reflecting the dying embers, but the street below is cast in shadow with an orange glow burning brightly above it. I board my train, and the sun and I race home together. The orb creeps ever closer to the horizon as I speed toward my evening plans.

As I arrive home in the gloaming — which has lasted a bit longer each day this week — I can feel the page turning. Soon the days will stretch and the warmth will increase to allow me to come home and eat dinner outside on my back patio, or go for a well-lit run, or take my daughter to the playground down the block.

The mere thought of it begins the annual healing process of the scar tissue earned from shoveling the driveway and scraping windshields and walking in the darkness.

The days are getting longer. Every day, there is more day to seize.


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A Brief Lesson in Humility

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You’re not humble enough. And neither am I.

I ran into a friend on my commute home this evening, who told me a story about one of his friends. This simple story was an instant lesson in humility.

My friend is a lawyer, and his friend — let’s call him Alex for the sake of this recounting — is also a lawyer. But there’s something else you should know about Alex: He has cerebral palsy.

I’m sure those two facts alone are enough to make you pause and reflect on all the challenges he had to overcome to embrace that vocation — and how relatively easy your path has been to get to wherever you are right now.

Alex’s life is a daily exercise in humility. Imagine being the person who holds up the train every morning so that the ramp can be employed to get you aboard. All I do is complain that the train is late. Imagine going to lunch with a friend and having to ask that friend to physically help you to use the restroom. Sometimes I wonder if I would even have the humility to be the helpful friend.

If you struggled daily against such overwhelming physical challenges since the day you were born, how would you be different? Would you complain as much about the petty daily annoyances that often seem so difficult and important in the moment?

If it was a physical struggle to get from Point A to Point B, I think my whole perspective would have to change. The challenge of doing simple things like getting on a train or having to wonder if a new location is handicapped accessible would probably force me to embrace the beauty of the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. Someone smiled at me.

The humbling part is that I don’t have such challenges, and yet I am usually unwilling to pause and recognize the blessing of the simple or the even simpler things. The sun is shining today. I have to stand on the train, but I am blessed to be physically capable of standing on the train.

It’s always a good time to be reminded of something that Alex proves every day: Our only real limitation is our inability to embrace what we do have.


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